Thistle Theology – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim WoodrumIsaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Our gospel lesson for today made me recall what I remember as the very first theological conundrum of my childhood.  I was probably 7 or 8 years old, it was summertime, and my Mom had admonished me to go outside and play.  I suspect on that particular day I had been a bee in my mother’s bonnet.  I walked outside into the front yard barefoot, enjoying the feeling of the warm grass between my toes.  That is until I experienced the sensation of sharp pain all over the bottom of my foot.  I jerked my foot up quickly as I looked down to discover that I had stepped squarely on a thistle.  After I had recovered from the pain, made sure there were no needles stuck in my foot, and surveyed the scene hoping that my parents had not heard the expletive I had shouted (not necessarily in that order), I began to wonder why God made thistles in the first place.  What was the purpose or a thistle?  Why did God create something to inflict pain on a barefooted kid such as myself?

And then I recalled what I had learned in Sunday school about Adam and Eve from the third chapter of Genesis where they ate the forbidden apple and became aware that they were naked (which naturally meant they too were barefoot).  The moment of reckoning came when God was walking in the Garden of Eden and discovered Adam and Eve hiding.  Amid God’s response to them were these words:  “Because you have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…” [i] Eureka!  God didn’t make thistles because He was a cruel trickster.  God made thistles because I was a sinner.  As time went on, I began to translate this shoddy theology and rather immature notion of God into other parts of my life.  The idea of any type of suffering, at least in my mind had to be because I had messed up in some way and God was punishing me.  I held this reasoning about judgment, punishment, and suffering as absolute truth for many years, well into my adulthood and it served to complicate my relationship with God.  In the language of 12-step recovery, this might be dubbed ‘stinking thinking.’

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus tell a parable about wheat and tares, good and evil, and ultimately judgment.  The slaves of a landowner notice that there are weeds growing in with the wheat crops.  You may know that the weed Lolium tementulum, which is commonly called ‘Bearded Darnel,’ is a type of grass that initially looks just like wheat.[ii]  However, unlike wheat, the seed of this weed is poisonous and produces a narcotic effect when consumed.  The landowner states that an enemy has come in and maliciously sewn this weed into the wheat crops.  The conscientious slaves ask the landowner if they should go in and pull the weeds.  But the landowner knows that the situation is complicated because root systems are now entangled and to pull the weeds would in fact uproot the wheat with it and destroy the crop before it could reach harvest maturity.  He instructs them to let the wheat and tares grow together until the crops are ready to harvest and then the reapers will separate the weeds, bundle and burn them.

In Jesus’ day, Palestine suffered under a brutal occupation of the Roman Empire.  People feared for their lives.  But the awareness of who was good or evil was not static.  It wasn’t as simple as Israel/good, Rome/bad.  There were many Jews, like tax collectors, who colluded with Rome in order to make a living while assuring their safety and well-being.  This made them social pariahs among their kinsman because many would take more than the prescribed amount in order to pad their own wallets.  The religious authorities of the day believed that God would not send a Messiah unless Israel maintained strict adherence to Jewish Law being careful not to ritually defile themselves or the Temple.  Yet, this rigid Legalism turned a blind eye to the suffering of others who had no means to support, care, or protect themselves, much less make the required Temple sacrifices and adhere to the letter of the Law.  Was their suffering a result of their own sin?  How could it be discerned who was pure and who was noxious and for what reasons?  This atmosphere provided fertile soil for stinking thinking.  When asked for an explanation of the parable, Jesus gave his disciples an eschatological interpretation; eschatological, meaning the ‘end times.’  God would sort out good from evil at the end of the age when the right time has arrived.  I imagine they were not comforted by this.  Was not Jesus the Messiah who had been sent to usher in the kingdom of God, expel Rome, and return Israel to God’s chosen people?  Had not the time for the ‘harvest’ arrived?[iii]

I fear all of us here this morning might feel similarly when hearing this parable and Jesus’ interpretation.  Perhaps many of you at one time or even currently are wrestling with a pattern of ‘stinking thinking.’  How many of us have had days where a string of mishaps in our physical, mental, or spiritual lives have caused us suffering?  In our prayer life, how many of us have asked, “God, what have I done to deserve this?”  The ‘stink’ from this kind of ‘think’ is pervasive and can result in a posture of rigidity, not only towards ourselves, but towards others who have made mistakes, exercised poor judgment, or are a product of a dysfunctional environment.  How many of us have prayed, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable from Luke’s gospel, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”[iv]  Thank you God that I have it all together and therefore am not poor, sick, addicted, homeless….you fill in the blank.  We live in a society that values litmus tests based on both the protestant work ethic of self-reliance:  God helps those who help themselves; and a gospel of prosperity which is transmitted ad infinitum on cable television:  God will reward and bless you according to the measure of your faith, or rather, your investment.  The result of these shoddy theologies and immature notions of God enable us to place judgment on both ourselves and others based on the ability to either pull ourselves up by the bootstraps or whether we can afford to send a faith-based donation to a wealthy pastor of a popular mega-church.  We, like Jesus’ disciples, may not exactly be comforted His eschatological interpretation that things will be sorted out in the end times.  So what can we take away from this parable in the meantime?  Let me suggest two things.

First, I mentioned earlier that the discernment of who was good and evil was not static.  The characters’ motives in the theatre of first century Palestine were ultimately good.  But fear distorts even the best intentions.  Tax collectors wanted peace and security, yet fear skewed this desire with greed.  The Pharisees also wanted peace and security which had always been found in obedience to God’s covenant.  Yet fear skewed this desire with a legalism that begat indifference to suffering.  The poor wanted peace and security but fear and desperation drove them to explore the most self-destructive means to in order to survive.  If we look closely, all of these people were a mixture of wheat and tare; all were capable of good and evil.  How many of us here today would call ourselves saints, and how many would identify ourselves solely as ‘bad apples?’  How many of us recognize that our best intentions have often been distorted by fear?

I suspect our presence in this chapel this morning indicates a latent desire for the life of abundance and freedom from fear that Jesus has invited us to.  If you’re like me this begins by noticing that the tendency to handle life on our own is like trying to stay above water in the deep end of the pool by flailing with all our might.  Hear Jesus words:  ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ [v] In 12-step recovery, the first three steps state that (1) we were powerless and that our lives had become unmanageable; (2) came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and (3) made a decision to turn our will and our lives over the care of God as we understood God.[vi]  Jesus is in the water with us, encouraging us to lean back as he supports us, ready to remove his hands and lead us to the delightfully discovery that we can indeed float if we will just follow his instruction.

Second, I would say that turning our will and life over to the care of Jesus is actually the beginning of a process.  Early in the growing cycle, it is often difficult to distinguish wheat from weed.  Bearded Darnel is virtually indistinguishable from wheat until it begins to bear its seed.  When we give ourselves over to the guidance and care of Jesus we actually begin a journey of discernment in prayer that will lead us to the life of abundance that Jesus promises.  This does not mean we are passive participants in the Christian life; we have our part to play in active discernment and then action based on the example of Jesus.  Again, in 12-step recovery, the first three steps are the tip of the iceberg.  Steps 4-12 begin a process of active engagement.[vii]  Floating is only the first lesson in learning to swim.  Upon the foundation of that basic skill we learn more advanced techniques that allow us to move more freely.  Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, spoke of this process in the language of the Eucharist:   “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”[viii]   All we have to do is show up, come forward, put our hands together and receive the bread and wine, the sustenance we will need for the next leg of the journey.  And this journey will eventually lead us to becoming precisely the person God has created us to be.  But we have to be patient and resilient as we continue to follow Jesus.

What is the purpose of a thistle?  What is the purpose of the Bearded Darnel?  In my youth I viewed it a punishment for sin.   My theology has evolved and now I’ve come to recognize it as a reminder of our need for Jesus and God’s steadfast and faithful desire for the life of abundance He has called us too.  Do you hear that call?  Let anyone with ears listen!

[i] Genesis 3:17-18

[ii] Arnold, Talitha J. Feasting on the Word. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011. Print. Year A.

[iii] Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone. Vol. 1. London: SPCK, 2002. Print. Chapters 1-15.

[iv] Luke 18:11

[v] Matthew 11:28-30


[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Benson, Richard Meux; The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, chapter XII, page 160-161

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  1. Annmarie Bartoli on August 3, 2022 at 11:25

    Good morning Brother Jim,
    I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school. I learnt our God was a forgiving God. I went to church every Sunday and said my prayers. But I never talked to God and as I grew older I forgot about my faith. But in the recent years I reconciled my relationship with God. I asked for forgiveness and I forgave others in my life. I speak with God every day now, from the moment I awake until I sleep. I have experienced God’s goodness and it humbles me. I still say my prayers but it is my talks with God that sustain me. We can say prayers but are we just repeating the words without feeling or a connection with our Father. Speak to God, I know he wants to hear our words. Have I heard the call? Absolutely yes. I look forward to the day I can meet him face to face, and I hope he will embrace me with forgiveness and love. Have a glorious day.

  2. Donald K Buxton on July 29, 2022 at 10:44

    Yep, I am hearing forgiveness, even for the thistles and bearded whatever.

  3. Reed Saunders on July 29, 2022 at 09:07

    Thanks Jim, beautiful meditation

  4. Ariel A on October 7, 2021 at 11:31

    Thank you for this great reminder of what hurts (Thistle) is also a reminder or our need – I am reminded of Apostle Paul as he too had a Thorn in his side to remind him that God’s grace is sufficient. Great use of the 12 step program as well –

  5. Michael Rowland on June 6, 2020 at 12:33

    Very clear and spoken with the right speed, so as not to drag out the readings!

  6. Cynthia Fahnestock on June 6, 2020 at 08:24

    A wonderful, memorable analogy from scripture. Thank you for your dedication to hearing fomr the Lord,,,,discerning and sharing.


  7. Reed Saunders on June 6, 2020 at 06:51

    Dear Brother Jim,
    As a nine year member of the AA fellowship, I deeply appreciate your meditation on old stinking thinking and the awakening to the truth of God’s mercy and grace for us; all sinners in great need of love and forgiveness. I sponsor men in recovery and many hold on to their old ideas quite strongly. It’s an act of grace when their hearts and minds are finally liberated by God’s truth.

  8. Anita Booth on June 29, 2019 at 11:07

    My son is in prison and has finished a BTh and Masters in Biblical studies. He’s trying, rather unsuccessfully, to find a PhD or MTh he can complete without the internet. He loves the Greek New Testament and to write. This is a thistle.

  9. Margaret Dungan on June 29, 2019 at 10:23

    Dear Br.Jim. Thank you for these very thoughtful words of guidance.There is always a need for us to grow in our understanding of words that we think we know and understand when there is always more to learn.


  10. Christina McKerrow on June 29, 2019 at 09:50

    Thank you for this beautiful sermon. Christina

  11. Jeanne DeFazio on June 29, 2019 at 08:33

    I really needed this timely word!

    Thanks. I experience wheat and tares daily and when I respond last lovingly it is the heart of Jesus shining through!

    God bless for the reminder!

  12. Harriet on June 29, 2019 at 05:48

    I too felt my bout of bad health was a punishment from God. It has taken 50 years to relearn and trust God’s love and care of me. Floating is a wonderful feeling and floating in the mercy of God is where I want to be. Thank you for this good homily.

  13. Sandra Ahn on July 24, 2017 at 12:33

    Dear Br Jim,
    What a heart stirring, soul lifting homily. I read it today as I hold my oldest sister in prayer due to the demands and complications of renal dialysis. News last night was disturbing so this homily comes at a time when she and I need nourishment, nurture.

    With gratitude and peace,,

    Sandra of Oakland

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